Interview with Creative Non-Fiction Writing Contest Judge, Sarah de Leeuw!

Interview by 
Kayi Wong

Room magazine's writing contest is officially open! Submission deadline is July 15th 2014. To kick things off, we spoke to our Creative Non-Fiction judge, Sarah de Leeuw, who kindly let us in on a few of her writing habits and tips for aspiring applicants. 

Sarah de Leeuw a is a writer, poet, human geographer, and an Associate Professor with UNBC's Northern Medical Program in the Faculty of Medicine at UBC. As if her resume is not impressive enough, she is also a two-time recipient of the CBC Literary Prize for Creative Non-Fiction. And just last year, her book of poetry--Geographies of a Lover--won the BC Book Prizes Dorothy Livesay Award for the best work of poetry. 

ROOM: In another interview, you mentioned that Creative Non-Fiction is your favourite literary genre. What compelled you to start writing creative non-fiction?

DE LEEUW: I don't think many people really know what creative non-fiction is - this was certainly even MORE the case in the very early-1990s when I first learned about it, when I began writing it during my undergrad degree in creative writing at UVic, under the mentorship of Stephen Hume (a really talented non-fiction writer!).

Creative Non-Fiction is a poorly understood, if not fully misunderstood, literary genre. It's constantly having to be defended against accusations of being 'not non-fiction enough' or 'not creative enough' or 'not being a real genre'. I think, to be honest, creative non-fiction's 'margin–dwelling' literary status may be what initially attracted me to it – I have a soft spot for most anything I perceive to be an underdog. I gravitate towards things I believe to be erroneously or unfairly overlooked. That was likely the beginning of my attraction to creative non-fiction — I wanted to work within a genre on the edge. Then I began to (even more) seriously write (really, really, write!) creative non-fiction. And my affinity grew with each effort — in my case, creative non-fiction essays.

The beauty of creative non-fiction is that it always springboards from the real – it is always anchored in actuality, in truth and fact (to the extent there is 'truth' or 'fact' in this world). Simultaneously, however, creative non-fiction refuses a reliance on pure fact as its entire premise or raison d'être. Instead, creative non-fiction insists the world of the real is worthy of poetry, of literary licence, of beauty, open-ended expansion, metaphor, and imagination. In my mind, this also makes creative non-fiction a more refined tool for shedding light on injustices, for writing about the geographies and events of and on the margins. The freedom to apply poetic licence to actual lived vernacular events is certainly what makes me love the genre.    

ROOM: Is there any one thing you try to achieve by the end of each final draft?

DE LEEUW: Achieving a final draft is a very complicated process for me. Rarely, in fact, am I ever fully happy with a piece of writing, even when it's published and out living its own independent life in the world. In other words, I hesitate to conceptualize anything as "final".

I am an ardent believer in the editing process. I always read my work aloud. I try to find people who will either listen to me read it or (if they have time) to read it themselves and offer me frank, honest, critical, and constructive critique. It might sound a little convoluted, but I think the one — if not the most important — thing I always try to achieve before I feel a work is ready to be sent off somewhere is . . . enough time for the piece to sit by itself for several weeks. I really, really, like to achieve distance from a piece of writing before I return to it. So much presents itself in a piece of writing when you're able to let it achieve independence from your effortful and purposeful work. 

ROOM: What was the last piece of non-fiction writing you read that had a significant effect on you?

DE LEEUW: As an academic, a geographer working in a faculty of medicine, I read SCADS of non-fiction – mostly of the academic/scholarly ilk. I don't say this flippantly: much of that work has a significant effect on me. For instance, I just read Rob Nixon's Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor – and it has spurred me to think about colonial violence against Indigenous peoples in British Columbia in an entirely new light. I am also an avid reader of magazines: I just finished a series of investigative feature articles on the currency of "being busy": the gist of these great pieces was that people are increasingly afraid of appearing unoccupied, fearing this will translate into being thought of as lazy. I was very comforted to read that Oscar Wilde thought the most difficult (yet ultimately most rewarding!) thing in the world was the act of doing nothing. After reading those essays, I'm thinking of reading Carl Honoré's The Slow Fix (2013). 

Finally, I have to say that last year while in the UK I bought (and shortly thereafter read) Kathleen Jamie's Sightlines:A Conversation with the Natural World – that was an absolutely fabulous book. Beautiful and gutting. Really, one of the best collection of creative non-fiction essays I've read in a very, very, long time.

ROOM: You've recently published an award-winning poetry book, Geographies of a Lover, how do you decide which genre to write in?

DE LEEUW: It might sound pat, but in some ways the topics about which I set out to write dictate (dare I say choose?!) the genres within which I write. Geographies of a Lover, a sexually explicit exploration of human relationship with physical geography and ecology narrated through a story of wrenching love and loss experienced by lovers separated by various life circumstances, required a poetic free-verse form: I would have felt awkward and unprepared to author what I explored inGeographies of a Lover in any other genre than poetry. Also, the rush and eminently orgasmic quality of language that I sought for that book was also only achievable, fully, through poetry. Having said that, some of my recent creative non-fiction essays ('Columbus Burning' or 'Quick-quick. Slow. Slow.'), which explored some of the more hurtful and mean aspects of northern and rural life, required the genre of creative non-fiction, a genre that allowed for transcription of news casts, historic documents, or dance instructions in verbatim form. Of a FAR more obvious nature, when I write about medical education, health inequalities, or violent colonial state intervention into Indigenous peoples lives and their communities, I need the structures and conventions of academic scholarly research – a genre unto itself in many ways.

ROOM: How do you think your academic background in human geography and medicine has defined or changed your position as a reader and writer over the years?

As an academic geographer and researcher/teacher within a faculty of medicine, something I've come to expect is consistent critical feedback on my thoughts and arguments - the foundation of my writing as a scholar. It is NEVER good enough to just say "well…because I think so…". Instead, I need to anchor all my academic/scholarly research in the literatures and knowledge contexts of others. This also makes me a careful reader, a reader who is always working to position myself in reference to others. My work is reviewed in a double–blind review process (this means I get feedback from people whose names I'll never know). Yet this has (very positively) informed my creative writing. I take very seriously the need to craft work – I try never to send off creative or scholarly work in a sloppy form. I try to do my research, whatever genre I'm working in. I try to consider audience and impact. And I learn in an interdisciplinary manner, drawing inspiration from myriad and often unlikely sources.

ROOM: Are you working on any writing projects right now?

DE LEEUW: I recently completed a manuscript of creative non-fiction essays entitled 'Where it Hurts' – which I'm shopping around with various publishers. Some of the essays in that collection have won CBC Literary Awards and have been published in literary journals like PRISM International and Filling Station. Just prior to completing 'Where it Hurts', I completed a book-length long poem, a kind of creative non-fiction poem/essay – a 10,000+ word poem entitled 'Skeena'. In that text, also currently being shopped around for a publisher, the Skeena River, the second longest river contained entirely within British Columbia, is the main narrator, telling a story of pre-human existence through to moments in which s/he (the river) sweeps up a cow-moose in the height of spring run-off. 

In addition to working on various academic papers about health inequalities and colonial power, I am working on a collection of poems (mostly short self-contained pieces – a new thing for me!) tentatively entitled 'Outside, America'. In that collection, I'm interested in the surreality of everyday ordinary events that are often moderated by the natural world. These are poems featuring landslides, the demise of automobiles, cancer, and Mexican sea tortoises floating to Northern British Columbia.

ROOM: What advice do you have for the writers wishing to submit their Creative Non-Fiction work to the Room contest?

DE LEEUW: Take time. Then take some more. Think. Think carefully. Edit. Revise. And edit some more. Make things your own, but never forget to pay homage to people who've inevitably done it better. Be humble while trying always to innovate. Read. Read a lot, and always with the critical eye of a loving plagiarist. Figure out what you want to say, and why you want to say exactly that. Have a reason for writing what you're writing. Paying attention to the craft of writing – simple things like careful attention to detail (what did the scene smell like, taste like, feel like?), writing with an active voice, and checking spelling and grammar — actually do make all the difference. Consider sound. Make a reader want to read. Be clear. Be committed to what you're committing to the written word.

ROOM: Final question: with the #readwomen2014 reading list in mind, who are a few of your favourite female authors, CNF writers or otherwise?

DE LEEUW: Jeanette Winterson remains one of my favourite living women writers – I often turn, and return, to her incredible lyric, her magical poetic fiction and scholarship. One of the last books I read was Lynn Coady's Hell Going – pure brilliance! I have always loved sparse smart bruised muscly prose, and Hell Going served it up in spades. 

Geographies of a Lover drew heavily on some fairly heavy-hitting (but I would argue under-valued) historical Canadian women authors, most specifically Elizabeth Smart and Marian Engel. I read and reread Elizabeth Bishop.

Also, I must say that — beyond the books they write — another thing that makes female authors favourites of mine is when they are generous of spirit, intent, and work. By this I mean that some of my favourite female authors are women who write AND who make time for other women writers, in a personal and everyday kind of way. Recently, I've had the VERY good fortune of spending time with creative non-fiction writer Theresa Kishkan – a genuine pleasure of a person. Also, I very much admire the work of, and the personable everydayness of Sharon Thesen, Eden Robinson, Nancy Holmes, Betsy Trumpner, Sheila Peters, and (really recently) Maleea Acker — all of these women are both writers and people I consider it to be an honour to know personally. Hiromi Goto is a gift to women writers and readers – any woman writer who has the privilege of working with her will improve multiple-fold. 

I deeply believe that as women writers, it is our responsibility to support each other — to create and foster supportive spaces (actual and literary) in which to write the writerly worlds of women.

“It's Canadian, feminist, and one of my favourite things ever.”

—bucketofrhymes, "29 Amazing Literary Magazines You Need To Be Reading", Buzzfeed Books

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